Choosing a wildlife sanctuary in South Africa – Which one to Visit?

Without a doubt, one of the main draws of visiting South Africa is the native wildlife.

Almost as soon as you picture visiting South Africa – or Africa as a whole – images of iconic animals spring to mind – lions, zebras, elephants, rhinos, buffalo and cheetahs to name just a few.

Of course, the best way to view the local wildlife is in the wild. There are countless safaris to choose from, allowing you to see these animals in their natural habitat, such as Sanbona which we visited near to Cape Town.

However safaris can be quite expensive, span for a few days and there is of course no guarantee of sightings. So, for a lot of people, whether you are on a budget, or limited time, the next best alternative to see native wildlife is by visiting a wildlife sanctuary in South Africa. 

wildlife sanctuary south africa
South Africa is home to such iconic wildlife

 

Factors to consider when choosing a wildlife sanctuary in South Africa

When it comes to choosing which wildlife sanctuary in South Africa to visit, there are a few things to take into consideration.

  • First, where is the sanctuary located – is it easily accessible to where you are based or staying?
  • Secondly, what can you expect to see there? Does the sanctuary have permanent residents, or do the animals change?
  • And for us, most importantly of all, is the sanctuary ethical – and how so?

As we were lucky enough to spend 3 months in South Africa during 2019, we managed to visit quite a few different sanctuaries.

Given the size of the country there are a LOT more out there than the few we visited. For this post, we reached out to fellow bloggers to see which wildlife sanctuary in South Africa they recommend and why.

We hope you find it useful!

Wildlife Sanctuaries in South Africa we have visited

The below inclusions are all sanctuaries that we have visited ourselves during our time in South Africa. 

Eagle Encounters

Eagle Encounters is a non-profit wildlife sanctuary which focuses on rehabilitation, conservation, education and eco-tourism. 

The centre is based in the popular wine region of Stellenbosch at Spier Wine Farm which is a 35-minute drive from Cape Town.

Eagle Encounters runs daily programmes inviting you to watch, learn and interact with a variety of birds of prey.

The people running the sanctuary are very knowledgeable, friendly and put on a really good presentation.

Beyond the birds of prey, the are many other animals on site. You will find meerkats, goats, pigs, snakes, spiders and adorable bat eared foxes to name a few.

Where appropriate, you are able to have some interaction with some of the animals on site. Eagle Encounters believes that interaction is the key to conservation and encourages people to become ambassadors.

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Owl interaction at Eagle Encounters

One of the important factors is that none of the animals at Eagle Encounters are there unless they need to be.

If it is possible and safe to release one of the animals back into the wild, then every effort is taken to do so.

We have been to Eagle Encounters twice now spending a couple of hours wandering around the centre to see all the different animals and enjoying a birds of prey daily feed ‘show’.

Entrance fees are R85 pp for adults, R70 pp for students and pensioners and R65 for children (age 3-12).

Entrance includes ALL of the interactive flying shows and all-day personal interactions with African wood owls, the famous dancing barn owls, Bengal eagle owls, snakes, bearded dragons, tortoises, rabbits, guinea pigs and more. 

Find out more at http://www.eagle-encounters.co.za/

Cheetah Outreach

We actually visited Cheetah Outreach with our friend Ellie who was visiting us at the time. As she felt very passionately about the work being done here, she wanted to write and contribute to this section herself.

‘’Cheetah Outreach have two sites: Somerset West, near to Cape Town and a smaller facility in Franschhoek (although this is temporarily closed).

Cheetah Outreach is a community-based programme that was started to make people aware of the plight of the cheetah through education and the use of ambassador cats.

All ambassador animals play an important role in raising money for conservation as they make such a huge impact on people who meet them.

Cheetah Outreach work with only reputable breeding facilities, mostly the Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre which is the oldest and most successful breeding facility in South Africa.

The sanctuary is run by knowledgeable staff and volunteers who are there because they love animals and want to help save such magnificent cats from extinction.

Cheetah Outreach run a Livestock Guarding Dog programme which is essential in protecting livestock on farmland from predators as a non-lethal method. This helps to ensure conflict between farmers and cheetahs is reduced.

At Cheetah Outreach, they understand enrichment is as important to animals’ welfare as nutrition and veterinary care. They use environmental and behavioural enrichment to enhance their physical, social, cognitive and psychological wellbeing.

Not only does this wonderful place have cheetahs, they are also home to servals, black-backed jackals, bat-eared foxes, meerkats and a caracal named Grace!

You do not need to make a booking to visit the facility.

They charge an entry fee of R10 on weekdays and R5 on weekends and public/school holidays.

This is not much to pay to see such amazing creatures! If you wish to have an animal encounter, there is a further fee but as Cheetah Outreach is charity run, I was more than happy to put more money towards this.

These beautiful animals are NEVER given mood controlling drugs. The guided interaction experiences are only ever offered when the animals are fed, relaxed and open to meeting people.

We experienced this first hand when we were unable to meet the caracal, Grace, due to her being on heat and feeling a little cranky!

I would hate to pay into anything unethical and realise there is a massive problem with places who just sound good rather than doing good.

Before coming to South Africa, I researched facilities we might visit, who offer hands on experiences with animals, to ensure we didn’t slip up in that minefield.

If you are travelling to South Africa, I absolutely recommend stopping by at Cheetah Outreach for a brilliant experience.’’

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Interacting with a cheetah at Cheetah Outreach

Thanks so much Ellie!

For more information and details of where to find the two facilities visit the Cheetah Outreach website here.   

Monkeyland

Monkeyland is located on the Garden Route in South Africa, approximately 15km east of Plettenberg Bay.

It forms a group of 3 wildlife sanctuaries in this area, along with Jukani Wildlife Sanctuary which is 7 km away, and Birds of Eden which is next door.

Monkeyland is the worlds first free-roaming multi-primate-species sanctuary. There are no cages here whatsoever. The monkeys and primates here are free to leave whenever they want to, but understandably choose not to! They are well-fed, looked after and stay within the sanctuary to avoid the baboons that live outside!

There are up-to ten different species of primates housed at Monkeyland, so you can expect to see capuchin monkeys, ringtail lemurs, black and white lemurs, gibbons and howler monkeys.

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Most of the primates at Monkeyland are ex-captive, either monkeys that had previously been kept as pets, or that have been rescued from circuses and laboratories.

When you visit Monkeyland, you are taken on a guided walk/tour, by a multi-lingual guide that takes roughly an hour.

Tickets can be purchased in advance via their website, and you can buy a ticket for either the individual sanctuary or combo for the other sanctuaries within this group.

To purchase tickets and see directions of how to find Monkeyland you can visit their website here.

Birds of Eden

Birds of Eden is another sanctuary forming the group of 3 along with Monkeyland and Jukani. Birds of Eden is located next door to Monkeyland.

Birds of Eden is described as a ‘truly free flight bird sanctuary’.

All the birds are free within the main aviary, which is essentially a large ‘dome’, spanning 2 hectares of indigenous forest.

It is home to over 3500 birds – about 220 different species. The main focus is African birds, although there is also a mixture of exotic birds too.

Some of the birds you can expect to see here are parrots, flamingos, cranes, parakeets, doves and even some ducks and geese.

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An example of the colourful birds found at Birds of Eden

Most of the birds here were previously kept as caged pets, and are no longer wanted by their owners. At Birds of Eden they have the opportunity of living the rest of their life in an environment as close to their natural habitat as possible.

For more information on the species, and how the sanctuary operates visit their website. Although most visits are self-guided, you can also book a guided walk via the website too.

Wildlife Sanctuaries in South Africa recommended by other bloggers

Addo Elephant Park

This recommendation comes from Campbell and Alya, who run the travel blog Stingy Nomads.

‘’Addo Elephant Park is one of South Africa’s twenty National Parks.

It’s located on the East Coast, 68 km from Port Elizabeth. The easiest and quickest way of getting here is renting a car or joining a tour from Port Elizabeth.

Many tourists visit Addo as a part of their Garden Route road trip. Addo is one of the oldest national parks in South Africa, founded in 1931.

It’s the third largest national park in South Africa after Kruger and Kgalagadi National Parks – the park occupies 3,600 km².

Addo was established as a conservation park to protect a few elephants that remained in the area. Nowadays it hosts more than 600 elephants.

Elephants are not the only mammals visitors can see in Addo. The Big Five can be spotted here – elephant, buffalo, rhino, lion and leopard.

Among other residents of Addo are warthogs, zebras, hyenas, jackals, many different antelopes (hartebeest, eland, kudu, bushbuck, springbok, etc.).

wildlife sanctuary south africa

Addo National Park does a lot of conservation work to protect indigenous animals and their habitats.

Many species that became extinct in the area like lions were successfully reintroduced in the park. There are no cages, feeding or any other human contact in the park. The animals here are not in captivity; they freely roam, hunt and migrate inside the park.

The end of the dry season August-September is the best time to visit Addo when animals come to waterholes for drinking. If you spend a couple of hours at one of the holes you might be able to see more animals than driving around.’’

Thanks so much Campbell and Alya! For more information on Addo, visit their website here

Jukani Wildlife Sanctuary

We visited Jukani Wildlife Sanctuary ourselves on the same day that we went to Monkeyland, as we had one of the combo tickets that provided entry to all three parks. Jukani is approximately 7km away from the other two parks.

Jukani is predominantly a sanctuary for big cats – lions, tigers, pumas, leopards and jaguars but is also home to other animals too. When we visited, we saw honey badgers, raccoons, caracals, zebra and springbok.

We loved it here, and so did fellow travel blogger Claudia who runs My Adventures across the World. Here is what she had to say about Jukani.

‘’In recent years, Jukani has strived to create a safe environment for big cats that have been rescued from a variety of situations. There are animals that were kept as pets, others that were living in zoos or used in circuses.

Jukani strives to recreate the environment in which they would live if they were not in captivity.

The females are all on birth control as having them reproduce would undermine the delicate balance of the place, and further limit the area in which they live, which for obvious reasons can’t be as big as it would be in nature.  

wildlife sanctuary south africa

Guides take around visitors on a walking safari, sharing insightful information on the lives of the animals kept there.

There is a strict code of behavior to ensure the welfare of animals – which always comes first. As part of this, Jukani operates a strict hands-off policy, meaning no interaction with any of the animals.  

The overall impression one gets upon visiting is that this is a project that strives to rescue animals from situations where they have been abused, and to give them the best life they could possibly wish for.

It’s great to see the animals here in the next best alternative to being in the wild, which obviously they cannot be as they would be unable to fend for themselves.  

Finally, what makes this a great wildlife sanctuary is that it educates visitors – including children – to respect animals.’’

Thank you for your input Claudia, and we’re glad you enjoyed your visit to Jukani as much as we did!

Claudia has also visited many other areas of South Africa. Aswell as her visit to Jukani, she was lucky enough to see wildlife in their natural habitat on a game reserve. Check out her recommendation.

For more information on Jukani Wildlife Sanctuary in South Africa and to book visit their website.

Emdoneni Cheetah Project

This recommendation comes from Erin, who runs Sol Salute. It was great to hear about this wildlife sanctuary, as this was a part of South Africa we hadn’t been able to visit.

‘’As a cliché cat lady, seeing all of the big cats in the wild was high on my list when in South Africa. Unfortunately, with only 9,000 cheetahs alive in the wild in Southern Africa, they are a very rare sighting. This is why I decided to visit the Emdoneni Cheetah Project in Kwa-Zulu Natal. 

Not only do you get to see cheetahs and other big cats up close, but they are an ethical sanctuary working tirelessly to release these cats back into the wild.

While the cats they rescue are unable to return to the wild due to their reliance and comfort around humans, they have a breeding project with the aim to release the young into the wild, where they belong. 

wildlife sanctuary south africa

When visiting you’ll see four species of wild cats: cheetahs, caracal (lynx), serval, and the housecat-like African wild cat.

The sanctuary and its accompanying lodge are located near the city of Hluhluwe but it’s most commonly visited from nearby St. Lucia, just under an hour away by car. Despite not being in town it was still one of my favorite things to do in St. Lucia. 

You can reserve ahead of time on their website which I recommend doing if visiting in busier months. There are two tours daily, a morning tour and an afternoon tour.

For a unique experience, I recommend visiting in the afternoon when they feed the cats. I’ll never forget seeing the caracal’s leap meters into the air to capture their meat! ‘’

For more information on Emdoneni Cheetah Project visit their website.

Panthera Africa

Stuart, who runs the travel blog ‘Just Travelling Through’ actually volunteered at a wildlife sanctuary in South Africa. Here is his recommendation for the big cat sanctuary Panthera.

‘’Volunteering was not something I’d planned when I travelled to South Africa, but once I heard about Panthera Africa Big Cat Sanctuary I couldn’t turn it down.

Located two hours from Cape Town and around 30km from the town of Hermanus, Panthera Africa offer educational tours and volunteer opportunities at their facility in spacious farmland.

Volunteers are met at Cape Town airport and returned there at the end of their experience.

The site itself is home to 27 animals, which as you might guess are predominantly big cats including lions, tigers, leopards, caracals a cheetah and three black-backed jackals.

During my stay as a volunteer there was plenty of time to get to know the animals and their unique characters. However, anyone hoping for a hands-on experience will be disappointed as there is no physical interaction with any animal (by volunteers or permanent members of staff). This is one of the reasons why Panthera are known as a true sanctuary and have been associated with world-wide organisations such as Born Free.

wildlife sanctuary south africa

There is also no trading or breeding and all the animals have been rescued from difficult situations, with some truly heart-breaking stories. Fortunately, they now live in large, grassy enclosures with regular enrichment to keep them entertained.

Volunteers stay in a large house (complete with swimming pool and five domestic animals) with two meals provided each day in exchange for a few hours work. This was my first volunteer experience and one that I’d love to repeat. I met some great people and gained a much greater understanding of the plight of the big cats not only in South Africa but worldwide.’’

For more information on what Panthera offers, visit their website

We want to thank everyone for all of their recommendations, and contributions to this post. The few wildlife sanctuaries in South Africa mentioned here are just a small sample of the countless others that can be found in this incredible country.

We need to be grateful for, and appreciate all the work that goes into running these places, so that international travelers like us have the chance to encounter the incredible wildlife that South Africa has to offer.

Is South Africa on your bucket list? If so, see if you can squeeze a visit to one of these amazing wildlife sanctuaries in South Africa onto your itinerary. We guarantee you won’t be disappointed, and at the same time you will be making a valid contribution to the welfare of the wildlife of this beautiful country.

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